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Reflections: Hands, Hearts & Faith

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by Jill Newton Moore, professor of Professional Communication

Editor’s Note: Jill Newton Moore spent the first three months on sabbatical, teaching in Cameroon, West Africa, thereby fulfilling a 30-year goal.

My first experience in Africa was attending high school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where my father served as a university dean. I was sheltered in my teenage bubble, attending an American school and living in a compound. Later in life, I made the decision to return to Africa in a very different capacity: to use my education and skills to serve others.

Fast forward 30 years. With my daughter Annie accompanying me, I arrived in Cameroon on January 17 to live and work in a tiny farming village. We woke to cries of roosters and ringing church bells and the incomprehensible chatter of women calling to each other in pidgin. We ate breakfast at a long, plank table and trudged the village’s sole road – what we came to call a “Dancing Road” because of the way it dipped like a whirling dervish – to the high school set on a hilltop above the village, bush farms and the convent complex.

Mambu, Bafut is home to an order of the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis (TSSF), who over the past 30 years have established a primary and secondary school, a health center, and a residential rehabilitation center for children with physical disabilities. We lived with the Sisters in the convent and taught at the secondary school, St. Joseph’s Comprehensive High School (SJCHS).

St. Joseph’s has over 300 students, girls ranging in age from 11-20. The prospects are limited for girls in Cameroon, a country plagued by poverty, disease, corruption, and a long history of discrimination against women. Most of our girls came from impoverished families who had to beg and borrow from friends, relatives, neighbors, the church and other donors in order to send one child to school. Our girls know that by accepting this help, they carry a heavy responsibility to be successful and support their family and community after school.

Our work was focused on teaching the girls leadership qualities and job skills through a variety of activities, including writing, computer literacy, critical thinking, public speaking and art making.

All of the girls were special to me, but one girl, Mirabelle Zepha, captured my heart. Perhaps the most selfless young woman I know, Mirabelle volunteers to mentor a much younger student who has such advanced scoliosis that she stands at nearly a 45-degree angle. Mirabelle helps her with laundry, bathing and shopping. But more important, Mirabelle is a true friend to Prisca. Mirabelle helps others in the village as well, and also volunteers at a health center, tending to AIDS patients. She does all of this because she was helped by others who paid her school fees, and she knows how much it means to have someone assist you.

Besides working with students, I held weekly workshops for the teachers. Many of the SJCHS faculty are strong in their fields but have no coursework in education, so when they learned of Alverno’s reputation in teacher training, they asked for help. And they listened attentively, eager to learn new techniques.

At the end of the long school day, Annie and I walked down the wooded path, ate dinner and caught up with the day’s events, then worked with the Sisters, writing grant applications, teaching computer skills and trouble-shooting the convent’s cranky technology.

During our three months in Bafut, we were fortunate to visit other convents, schools, hospitals and orphanages established by the TSSF. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed and accepted into homes and families, invited to weddings and funerals, handed babies to coo and cuddle with, and always, always ordered to “Eat, eat, eat more!”

We had adventures too. One night we were under lockdown at the convent as armed thieves held the parish priest captive until hundreds of villagers stormed up the hill, armed with machetes, knives, rocks, sticks and their bare hands until they drove the thieves into the woods. We were served drinks in the royal palace, went dancing with teachers, marched in the Women’s Day parade and learned to speak rudimentary pidgin.

Every single day gave us the opportunity to learn something new. But the most significant thing I learned was that throughout Cameroon, indeed throughout the world, Franciscan Sisters work tirelessly to make life better for people in need. They build schools and hospitals. They establish orphanages and farms. They educate, feed, heal, nurture and love those who need it most, and they often do it with no more resources than their hands, hearts and faith. I have felt part of this in my 25 years at Alverno, and to be able to live the mission in Africa changed me in ways that shape every day.

Jill Newton Moore, professor of Professional Communication, was in Cameroon between January 17 and April 14, 2011. She is eager to thank a host of people who made this experience possible, including Mary Rose, Stephen Sharkey and Mary Meehan.

To read more about Jill’s time in Cameroon, or to find out how you can help Mirabelle and others at SJCHS, visit her blog at jillmoore.wordpress.com.